ATLANTA — He didn’t arrive in D.C. with the hype that surrounded Stephen Strasburg. He doesn’t own a major award like Max Scherzer. He has never won 20 games like Gio Gonzalez. And he certainly didn’t display flair on and off the field like Livan Hernandez.
None of that mattered, though, with Jordan Zimmermann. Simply earning the designation of “Best Pitcher in Nationals History” was more than enough.
Someone else will try to take that title away from him in the years to come, and there won’t be anything he can do about that now. After a strong but ultimately losing performance Wednesday night during a 2-0 defeat to the Braves, Zimmermann likely saw his career with this franchise come to an end in uninspired fashion.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “We had high hopes this year and it didn’t really work out. But I made some great friends along the way. I’m going to miss these guys.”
Zimmermann, who officially becomes a free agent five days after the World Series, made a point to say several times he doesn’t know where he’ll land this winter and that the Nationals will have every opportunity to re-sign him. Anyone who has been following this matter over the last two years, though, knows that ship has long since sailed away.
The Nationals made their pitch to lock Zimmermann up to an extension each of the last two winters, but the two sides never came close on an agreement. The 29-year-old was determined to test free agency and see what kind of contract he could command; the Nats moved on, signing Scherzer earlier this year to a $210 million deal that all but guaranteed Zimmermann’s departure.
There was never any bad blood between parties, though, and during these final weeks there has been mutual admiration expressed between pitcher and organization.
“He’s not only a good teammate, but a friend of mine,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who like Zimmermann made his debut with the Nationals in 2009. “I’m proud of him. We played together in Double-A, and I’ve watched his progression. We’ve seen him blossom into an unbelievable pitcher. He’s pretty darn good. And any team, whether it’s the Nationals or anybody else, will be lucky to have him.”
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Zimmermann’s legacy is one of consistency. His rookie season was disrupted by a torn elbow ligament that stunned the entire organization, but once he returned from Tommy John surgery, he never spent another day on the disabled list.
From 2011-15, Zimmermann averaged a 13-8 record, 3.14 ERA, 31 starts, 194 1/3 innings, 157 strikeouts and only 36 walks.
“Consistency. Durable. Reliable. For a starting pitcher, that’s important,” manager Matt Williams said. “And he’s provided that for this organization for a long time. It’s always tough having Tommy John. He’s responded from that. He’s worked hard to become the pitcher he has become. I admire him for that, and respect him for the way he goes about it every fifth day.”
“When I first had Tommy John, I was a little shaken up about it,” Zimmermann said. “But after reading some stuff and seeing all the guys that went through it and came back, I knew I’d be fine. My goal was when I came back to start being this elite pitcher that’s going to eat up innings and go out every five days and grab the ball and give the team a chance to win. That’s what I’ve been doing the last few years.”
Zimmermann’s methodical pitching style and soft-spoken, rural Wisconsin personality, could make him come across as uninteresting at times. But he certainly had his highlight-reel moments along the way.
There was, most notably, his no-hitter on the final day of the 2014 regular season, best expressed by the isolated camera angle of the pitcher slumping his shoulders when he thought Miami’s Christian Yelich broke it up with two outs in the ninth, then raising his arms in triumph when Steven Souza Jr. made a spectacular catch in left field to save the day.
But there also was a surprise bullpen appearance in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS, with the Nationals’ season hanging in the balance and a fresh arm needed to pitch the seventh inning of a 1-run game. Zimmermann retired the side with an amped-up arsenal no one had ever seen from him before or since.
Those kind of dazzling performances sprinkled among his regular, consistent work, made Zimmermann one of the game’s best pitchers, even if his name wasn’t often included among those who garner far more attention.
“I think his numbers stand up with anybody’s,” Desmond said. “I think as far as the attention, that’s something he’s kinda chosen to take that route. I’m sure there’s certain opportunities where he could’ve gotten in front of a camera and did a commercial. But that’s not about him. He’s about going out there and handling his business and pitching. That’s what he wants to do, and he thrives. Whether he gets recognition or not is not going to change him. He’s gonna go out there and do his thing every time.”
The pitching-rich Nationals will find a way to replace Zimmermann in 2016 and beyond. They still have Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark, with top prospect Lucas Giolito knocking on the door. But that doesn’t make his pending departure easier for his teammates to swallow.
“It’s pretty hard,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “I want that guy on this team. I’ve got five years working with him, and we get really good communication and really good relationship. This is the business. You can be here one year and you can’t the next year. You have to keep it going. In this job, you know where you start, but not when you finish. It’s hard to see a guy leaving from your team.”
Never the sentimental type, Zimmermann admittedly took a few moments this week to soak in his surroundings. He knows he’ll be pitching somewhere in 2016, and he knows he’ll be paid handsomely to do it. But The Best Pitcher in Nationals History knows it won’t be the same as the place he has called home for seven years.
“I’ve been thinking about it the last couple days, actually,” he said. “I may not be around these guys any more next year. Some of these guys have been around seven years, and we’ve had a great time. We’ll see what the offseason brings.”
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